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Fairfax County Public Schools: Post Budget Story 'Misleading'

Fairfax Schools say recent Washington Post story about system having about $30 million extra annually had 'several misleading and inaccurate statements.'

Fairfax County school bus | Patch file
Fairfax County school bus | Patch file

Fairfax County Public Schools says a recent Washington Post story that reported the system had more than $305 million extra over the last 10 years contained several misleading and inaccurate statements.

Read the entire Washington Post article here.

FCPS published its response in the most recent Family newsletter. The Q and A is printed below.

Q: Is it true that over the past 10 years, the leftover funds from year-end balances have added up to more than $305 million?

A: No, it is not true. The article suggests FCPS has accumulated a surplus of $305 million over 10 years. In fact, the chart accompanying the story refers to it as a "surplus." We do not have $305 million in unspent funds. Every year, we have an ending balance that is used primarily as a source of revenue to balance the next year’s budget.

To better understand this, think of your personal budget. At the end of the year, let's say you have $1000 left over, which will be available the next year to meet your expenses both anticipated and unforeseen. During the next year, if you spend all of the money you earn and use $250 of the $1,000, you will have $750 left, not $1,750 ($1,000 from the first year plus the $750 from the second year).

Therefore, in the article, when they added all the years' remaining balances, it was misleading to come up with a total amount of $305 million.

Q: So what is the correct amount?

A: To apply this example to FCPS, at the end of FY 2013, there was an available balance of $55 million, which represents about 2 percent of FCPS' total operating budget of $2.5 billion. That amount is the ending balance that reflects all the activities of that fiscal year including the amount available from the previous year.

In reality, FCPS’ ending balances for the past 10 years have ranged from $6 million to $55 million—averaging about $29 million annually. 

Q: But why isn't FCPS spending this year-end balance to give employees a raise?

A: Raises are recurring expenditures that should not be funded with one-time available money. Year-end balances fluctuate year to year due to changing conditions. For example, when we have a mild winter, we have one-time savings in utilities accounts that contributes to the year-end balance.

Since these year-end balances fluctuate, it is most prudent to use those monies for one-time expenditures, rather than permanent increases. If the money is used for salary increases, it permanently increases payroll amounts. For example, a 1 percent raise costs approximately $19 million, which would then permanently increase the budget.

Because of our serious economic circumstances in recent years, FCPS has acted prudently and has used the available end of year balance to meet upcoming fiscal years' expenses. FCPS is required by law to have a balanced budget.

Q: What happened to the FY 2013 available balance?

A: The majority of it, $45 million, was set aside to help with the projected FY 2015 budget deficit. The remaining amount was spent on infrastructure needs such as buses, major maintenance, and artificial turf fields (see below).

Q: How does FCPS compare to the county and state?

A: Most governmental agencies (including Fairfax County government and the Commonwealth of Virginia) have monies remaining at the end of the year due to several factors. Each year, budgets are built around projected amounts, which represent best estimates and typical circumstances. But expenditures can fluctuate from those estimates based upon various factors, such as energy and fuel costs.

For FY 2014, FCPS has a budget of $55.1 million for utilities, primarily to cover electricity costs for 27 million square feet of building space. A mild summer and winter could yield millions in savings. Similarly, the budget for vehicle fuel to provide student transportation over nearly 400 square miles is $13.5 million and a significant change in fuel prices could cost more money or save money.

In addition, the FCPS budget is 88 percent compensation so when positions remain open for a period of time, there will often be monies remaining in those budgets.  However, once the position is filled, the costs associated with a full year will be needed.

Q: Did the School Board remove $1.9 million in funding for new elementary school science readers to help fund the construction of synthetic turf athletic fields? 

A: No, the School Board decided to remove the funding for science supplemental readers and subsequently a proposal was made to fund the turf fields. The two were not linked. The removal of science supplemental readers from the year end budget of $1.9 million was the Superintendent’s recommendation at a prior School Board Work Session. This action had nothing to do with the decision to fund turf fields at a later School Board meeting.

In addition, there was a Joint Boards Synthetic Turf Task Force that included representation from the County Board of Supervisors, the County Parks and Recreation Department, and the School Board. The Joint Task Force recommended funding options to address identified equity issues for certain areas of the county. As recommended, the School Board allocated $1.5 million contingent upon the Board of Supervisors allocation of the same amount out of their year-end balance.

Q: Why haven't employees seen the 2 percent pay raise in their paychecks yet?

A: While the School Board did approve the salary increase, the effective date was pushed back to January 1, 2014, instead of starting on July 1, to lessen its impact on this year's budget. Just for some context, the increase is also to help mitigate the impact of the VRS shift. The bottom line impact to employees’ net pay will be less than 1 percent.

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